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Interview with David Li


Soon to be an octogenarian, Dr. David Li continues to produce extraordinary works. Rarely have we seen a more dedicated scholar, author, and educator. His Art of Leadership book, a bilingual edition of Sun Tzu's Art of War, amazes us with its detail -- individual Chinese characters before each English translation -- and its push for relevancy with 26 real-life case studies.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Art of Leadership is its very author David Li, a US-educated, native Chinese with continual ties to China and the country's perspective. Although a scholar from the West can do an excellent job in illuminating Sun Tzu's concepts, it would be a tremendous advantage to understand the subtleties of the Chinese mindset. Dr. Li did his job admirably and the Sun Tzu community remains grateful for his contribution and scholarship.

His other books include Dao De Jing, Analects of Confucius, The Genealogy of Chess, Kriegspiel: Chess Under Uncertainty, Chess Detective: Kriegspiel Strategies, Endgames and Problems, The Happy Game of Mah-Jong, and the Xiangqi Syllabi.

David Li was born in Ningbo, China, and earned his baccalaureate degree in Shanghai, an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton), and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. His professional career was mainly in the academia: at the University of Southern California (assistant professor), University of Washington, Seattle (professor), and University of Texas, Dallas (professor).

He also served as Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Commerce at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; a Ford Foundation Visiting Professor to the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta; and to the Qinghua University, Beijing, China.

His non-academic work includes (1) Partner, SGV & Company, an international CPA firm headquartered in Manila and assigned to Taipei (Li is a CPA in California and in Taiwan), (2) Associate Director, Cost Accounting Standards Board, a Federal agency in Washington DC, and (3) Senior management officer at the World Bank Group, Washington DC.

Below is our interview with Dr. David Li. Enjoy! How did you first learn about Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and what about it encouraged you to study more?

Li: People of Chinese ancestry are generally familiar with China's classics, among which is Sun Tzu's Art of War. Any one who has lived in China until adulthood probably comes across sayings in Chinese classics with regularity, perhaps at school as a part of the curriculum, perhaps from books and newspapers one reads, or perhaps from friends who might quote such passages as a part of their conversation. In short, being familiar with Chinese classics is natural to one with Chinese ethnicity. In 2000, you published The Art of Leadership: A New-Millennium Bilingual Edition of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. What motivated you to write this book, and would you mind explaining why you chose its title?

Li: Sun Tzu's Art of War is the second Chinese classic I translated into English, the first one I translated being Confucius's Analects, which was published in 1999. Since Chinese is my native tongue, I generally read Chinese classics in the original, and was unconcerned about their English translations.

However, in 1998 or so, my brother-in-law, Charles Liu, who had retired from Texas Instruments (including assignments in China) and was serving as a consultant to Halliburton at the time, was asked to accompany a delegation, including its chairman (Dick Cheney), to visit China in an orientation trip preliminary to establishing business relationships there.

As preparation, he was asked to brief the delegation about China and her Chinese culture, and to suggest books to read. For non-business books, Charles's thought turned immediately to Confucius's Analects -- it is generally acknowledged that if one had time to read but one book about China and her culture, that book would have to be the Analects, so Charles's selection is understandable. But, after reading several English translations of the Analects, he found all of them wanting. He called me and asked if I could help him out by translating one for his use.

As a start, I read several such English translations commonly available on the market, and, after reading them, I cannot help not agreeing with Charles -- these translations were by European missionaries, who, with but a year or two's acquaintance of the Chinese language, "translated" the Analects with their natural Eurocentric bias and religious slant that completely misrepresented Confucius's viewpoint. After reading these volumes, I felt that I have an obligation to set the record straight, so I proceeded to translated one myself.

This volume has several features (which are incorporated in my subsequent translations, including the Art of War) absent in all other volumes I had come across.

One, it is presented interlinearly. This means that a short passage in Chinese, consisting a short paragraph of two or three lines, is first presented; it is immediately followed by its English translation -- it is, thus, truly bilingual. A reader literate in both Chinese and English can thus assess the propriety of my rendition -- Is the translator's word choice appropriate? Has he rendered the tone satisfactorily? When the original lines are rhymed, has the translator followed suit and rendered the English passage rhymed?

Two, it is suitably footnoted (in the Analects, almost 500 footnotes). A passage is more meaningful if its context is known to the reader -- What is the socio-political environment under which a passage was made? What is the background of the person referred to in the passage? What is the implication of this passage? What is the rationale for the translator's use of a particular word in the rendition? and so on. (For an example of a footnote in my translation of the Art of War, see the last sentence in my answer to Question 2.)

Three, it includes a year-by-year chronology of the protagonist's life. Four, it includes one or more index/indexes. There are other unique features, but I think this is adequate for our purpose at hand.

Upon publication, my brother-in-law was pleased. Because, with the many features described in the preceding paragraph, a reader can read the book by oneself and can gain a good understanding of its contents and its importance.

Further, since, by 1999, I have been in the United States for exactly 50 years, and since I have written some 15 books in English before that, I am conscious of the need to make my presentation clear, unambiguous, consistent, and straight-forward -- in short, to make my writing easy to read and devoid of any bias. And the company management was equally pleased. With that happy beginning, Charles wanted me to do another volume, a volume suggested by the company for which he was serving as a consultant. And that volume is Sun Tzu's Art of War.

I am sorry for the long preliminary. Now, to your question: Why do I select "The Art of Leadership by Sun Tzu" as the translation's title, let me answer it this way. Sun Tzu's work, as originally prepared, had no titles nor chapter headings. It was simply identified as "Thirteen chapters." The title in Chinese was added much later, by a statesman-cum-warrior; its translation as The Art of War is, of course, by a westerner.

When one reads the 13 chapters, one must be struck by the theme as expressed by Sun Tzu (the protagonist's name is Sun Wu). The theme is not war but, rather, on its avoidance; the focus is not on winning by waging a war, but on winning by not engaging in a war. To that extent, Sun Wu was greatly influenced by Li Er (popularly known as Lao Tzu, Confucius's senior by some 20 years), who wrote Dao De Jing (a book I also translated, and published in 2001), and who expressed exactly this view in DDJ. True, many chapters beyond the first chapter in Sun Tzu's work do deal with various aspects of preparing for, and winning, a war, a defensive war. This is also the view expressed in DDJ -- fight a defensive war if one is forced to; when forced to fight, fight to win, but do not rejoice after winning; treat winning a war as undertaking a funeral.

But the key chapter in the entire 13 in Sun Tzu's work is the first one -- it is addressed to the head of state; as originally written, it was for a specific head of the state for whom this treatise was intended. This is both clear and subtle -- perhaps too subtle to contemporary eyes, particularly to those who do not have Chinese as native language -- and it is presented in the very first sentence of this treatise. After translating this sentence, I have added a footnote, also the very first one in this volume, on what is meant by the phrase "a major affair of the state"; the footnote ends by saying "They [officiating in ceremonies honoring past kings and deciding whether to engage in war] symbolize a head of state's leadership in peace and in war, respectively." This footnote gives me the inspiration to title my translation as the Art of Leadership. Of the 26 cases you used as examples to illustrate Sun Tzu concepts in your book, only one is on business. Is that because you do not think Sun Tzu’s concepts apply very much (or very often) in business?

Li: On the contrary. Sun Tzu's concepts are applicable to many different disciplines, business included. Clearly, among non-war applications of Sun Tzu's concepts, those applied to business are both intellectually attractive and financially rewarding, as evidenced by the many such books on the market.

As originally planned, since business administration is my field (as evidenced by my PhD in accounting and finance, and by my professorship in Business Administration) I wanted to do a separate case-study book that applies Sun Tzu's concepts to business. I like case studies; textbooks I have written have included cases. But, given my background, I feel that I must do an exceptionally good job in relating Sun Tzu's concepts to business. I regret that, other than collecting worthy cases, I have not converted these cases into case studies for a book. In any case, I thank you for the reminder. How much influence do you think Sun Tzu (and his principles) has had on the world? In other words, how would the world be different today if Sun Tzu and his Art of War never existed?

Li: Playing defense, Sun Tzu excels in convincing readers that an underdog, with proper motivation and suitable techniques, can win a defensive war against overwhelming odds. This very concept could act as a deterrent against aggressors, if the latter are cognizant of this concept. But, unfortunately, the operating word here is "could"; a powerful aggressor simply ignores it and does whatever that is commensurate with that power.

An interesting corollary to the above is the morale of the underdog. Recently, I came across an interesting book entitled "Guerilla Investing" (1998), by Peter Siris, a Wall Street analyst. The subtitle of this book is "Winning Strategies for Beating the Wall Street Professionals." In the book, Siris quotes Sun Tzu repeatedly; its chapter headings have similar flavor. One is entitled "Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself." Another one says: "Avoid the Enemy's Strengths." Still another says: "Attack the Enemy's Weaknesses." Very interesting and very uplifting -- it certainly lifts the morale a run-of-the-mill "investor" like me.

Indeed, with a positive attitude, I feel much more confident and think that I can indeed "beat the Wall Street professionals" -- producing returns better than what the Wall Street fund managers can muster. What a feeling! You were born in Ningbo, China in 1928, and later emigrated to the United States in 1949. From your research and life experiences, what are the major differences between how people from the West and how people from the East view warfare and competition?

Li: China, despite her long history and unrivaled culture, has always been an underdog when pitted against the west. On East vs West, let me answer it this way. A couple of days from now, I shall revisit China for two weeks, touring various sites made famous by Admiral Zheng He, who first set sail to South Seas in 1405, 600 years ago. According to a book published a couple of years ago, "1421: The Year China Discovered America" (2002), by Gavin Menzies, a retired UK submarine captain, one of Zheng He's colleagues landed in America in 1421, decades before Columbus did. Along the way, Zheng He's crew set foot on many lands in Africa -- in western language, his crew "discovered" these lands. But, did he or his crew plant a flag and claim the land to be the property of the ruler of the "discoverer" as Columbus later did? No. On the contrary, he and his crew left Chinese culture behind -- porcelains to keep rain water for future use, grain for cultivation, etc.

Yesterday, Chinese president Hu Jin-tao and US president George Bush had a private meeting during the UN opening session. At the meeting, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Hu emphasized that "China was intent on peaceful development." The report was silent as to whether Mr. Bush said words similar to those. Your passion is chess. You recently had an intellectually stimulating interview with Dr. Rene Gralla of ChessBase regarding XiangQi, also known as Chinese Chess. (You both were in Paris, France for the first ever XiangQi World Championship held outside of Asia.) We thought you made a convincing argument that the game of chess was indeed invented in China by general Han Xin. You mentioned chess was invented to illustrate the teachings of Sun Tzu, and that even Han Xin wrote three volumes on Sun Tzu’s Art of War (which unfortunately was destroyed). What do you think are the parallels between chess and The Art of War, and, to a certain extent, real-life warfare and competition?

Li: If you use the word "chess" to denote a board game that simulates warfare, which, in my view, refers to Xiangqi as evolved from proto-chess, I would accept the statement. Otherwise, if the word is used as a shorthand representation of "western chess," I would submit my protest. Western chess must be qualified as such, as I just did. Else, I have suggested the term "Queenqi," for its unrelenting focus on the Queen or on a pawn's promotion to a Queen. That proto-chess was invented by Han Xin was based on my 18 months' research at the Library of Congress, in China, and at the palace in Istanbul and at the market in Rhodes, Greece -- this research resulted in a 385-page book I wrote. Entitled "The Genealogy of Chess," it was published in 1998 and earned a "Book of the Year 1998" honor from the book-review editor of the GAMES magazine.

On books on Xiangqi, I published my first volume, First Syllabus on Xiangqi, at the request of the Singapore Xiangqi Federation when it hosted the 4th World Xiangqi Championship in 1995; I was there. Again, based my experience as a university professor, the pedagogy used in the book is different from other Xiangqi books. To my way of thinking, Xiangqi is a foreign language no different from accounting as a foreign language -- topics must be introduced incrementally, clearly, and consistently.

The application of Sun Tzu's concepts to war-simulation game was the very reason why Xiangqi was invented -- and Han Xin was/is the undisputed champion and the best student to follow Sun Tzu's concepts. In The Art of Leadership by Sun Tzu, I have two case studies on Han Xin, one on how he applied Sun Tzu's concepts in a stunning victory in an important battle (against overwhelming odds, as it were), and the other on how he applied Sun Tzu's concepts in inventing Xiangqi.

After five volumes on Xiangqi (the second to fifth volumes feature a different playing piece in each, Cannon, Elephant, Pawn, and Horse), the sixth one, to be published in 2006, will feature the application of Sun Tzu's concepts to Xiangqi in a more extended manner -- the entire book will be devoted to this subject, using games from the recently held 9th World Xiangqi Championship, in Paris, as illustrations. You are a septuagenarian and soon to be an octogenarian! Considering the current social and economic environment, what advice would you give to an aspiring young person?

Li: As a soon-to-be octogenarian, I begin to appreciate the virtue of what Li Er advocates in the Dao De Jing -- I am much less competitive and much less ambitious, which may not be good for an aspiring young person. On the other hand, I always find reading to be rewarding. A Chinese proverb says it best: Read ten thousand books, travel ten thousand miles. I try to follow these words, and so can everyone. Perhaps another Chinese proverb is even better: Learn until you are old; learning never ends. I try to follow these words too. What is Prof. David H. Li’s current or next project?

Li: As a soon-to-be octogenarian, I realize that I have at most one more book in me (besides the scheduled sixth volume in the Xiangqi series). For the past two years, I have been reading books on the impact of western religion on Chinese culture, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries. The more I read, the more inadequate I feel. So, it is a chancy proposition. Still, I hope I have enough brain in me to finish this project, which is undoubtedly an important one in my thinking.

[End of interview]

We suggest the following books by Dr. David Li:

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